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Codeine

6-minute read

If a person is not breathing, or if they are unresponsive, seek help straight away. Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Codeine is an opioid pain-relief medicine used for the short-term relief of mild to moderate pain.
  • It is not usually recommended for the treatment of chronic (long-term) pain.
  • Codeine is only available on prescription from your doctor.
  • If you stop taking codeine suddenly, you may experience withdrawal symptoms.

What is codeine?

Codeine is an opioid medicine that is only available on prescription from your doctor.

LOOKING FOR A MEDICINE? — See this list of medicines that contain codeine to find out more about a specific medication.

What is codeine used for?

Codeine is used for the short-term relief of mild to moderate pain. It should only be used when other forms of non-opioid pain relief have not been successful in managing pain or are not tolerated.

Codeine is not usually recommended for the treatment of chronic pain.

Codeine may also suppress a dry cough.

How does codeine work?

Codeine works directly on opioid receptors in the central nervous system and reduces feelings of pain by interrupting the way nerves signal pain between the brain and the body.

It also suppresses the activity in the brain that controls coughing.

What are the possible side effects of taking codeine?

All opioids, including codeine, can have side effects including life-threatening breathing problems. The risk of these is higher:

  • when first taking codeine
  • after a dosage increase
  • if you are older
  • if you have an existing lung problem

The side effects of codeine are similar to those of other opioids, and include:

Always take medicines exactly as prescribed your doctor.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What are the risks associated with codeine?

Opioids are strong pain medicines and can cause life-threatening breathing problems.

If you take codeine, you may become dependent on this medicine even if you take it exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Your doctor will monitor how you use codeine, to reduce your risk of harm, including through misuse, abuse and addiction.

You can also develop tolerance when you take codeine — this means that you may need to take larger amounts of the opioid to get the same effect. As the dosage increases, so does the risk of side effects.

WORRIED ABOUT YOUR OPIOID USE? — The Opioid Risk Indicator can help you find out if you may be developing a problem.

Continue to take codeine for as long as your doctor tells you to. If you stop taking codeine suddenly, you may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Codeine may make it difficult for you to drive or operate heavy machinery. If you have recently started taking codeine or another opioid medication, or the dosage has changed, you may be at higher risk of having an accident.

If your kidney or liver function is impaired, your doctor may decide that codeine in not appropriate for you. There are other factors that may limit your use of codeine — for example, if you drink alcohol or take other medicines that can cause drowsiness.

Your doctor is the best person to advise you on whether codeine is the right medicine for you, how much you need and how long to take it for.

If a person is not breathing, or if they are unresponsive, seek help straight away. Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Access to overdose-reversing medication

Naloxone is a medicine that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. A pilot program, funded by the Australian Government, is offering certain individuals in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia this medication (including the nasal spray Nyxoid) free of charge and without a prescription.

Learn more here about the take home naloxone pilot.

Are there alternatives to codeine?

Everyone's pain is unique, and different pain-relief medicines will work in different circumstances. Some people’s pain will respond well to non-opioid medicines, which are generally associated with fewer risks and side effects.

Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before making any change to the dosage or type of medicine you take.

If you have chronic (long-term) pain, your doctor might suggest lifestyle changes to help manage the discomfort. This may include physical fitness and activity pacing, social activities, relaxation techniques and overall health management.

You can find more information here about options for managing chronic pain.

If you are taking codeine to suppress your cough, there are several other medicines available over the counter at a pharmacy. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what may be a suitable alternative for you.

When should I see my doctor?

If your pain is not well controlled with codeine or you have any new or unexpected side effects, see your doctor.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Pain Question Planner to prepare for your doctor’s appointment.

How do I dispose of medicines safely?

It's important you dispose of unwanted opioid medicines safely — unused medicines can be returned to any pharmacy. Don't keep unused codeine 'just in case', since this can lead to inappropriate use.

Keep codeine out of reach of children and pets. Never throw medicines into a garbage bin or flush them down the toilet — this is dangerous to others and harmful to the environment.

Resources and support

Asking about your treatment or medication is important to help you understand your options. Here's a guide to questions to ask your pharmacist or doctor before taking a medicine.

See also this list of medicines that contain codeine to read the consumer information medicine (CMI) leaflet for the brand prescribed, or:

  • Call the NPS MedicineWise Medicines Line (1300 633 424) to talk about the medicines you are taking for your pain.
  • Discuss your pain on the Pain Link telephone helpline (1300 340 357) which is staffed by volunteers with personal experience of chronic pain.
  • Go to Painaustralia to find pain services and programs in your area.
  • Learn more about prescription opioids on ScriptWise.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2021


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Codeine - Alcohol and Drug Foundation

Codeine is part of a group of drugs known as opioids which interact with receptors in the brain and can elicit feelings of pain relief, to relaxation, pleasure and contentment.

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Information about changes to over the counter medicines containing codeine taking effect 1 February 2018.

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